“I don’t like the idea of characterizing my own poetry. I like sitting in the middle of it and thinking of it as being incomprehensibly vast and various.”
Professor Albert Moritz speaks slowly, searching with determination for the perfect combination of words in conversation. As the poet, academic, and former journalist speaks about the written word, Moritz’s reverence for craft and passionate opinions about the role of poetry in society almost mask a disarmingly wry sense of humour.
The professor of Victoria College’s Vic One program, who has written poetry his entire life, recalls with irony his first poem: a lyrical eight lines written in ballad form, celebrating the pastoral pleasures of working in his garden.
“I was very close to nature,” he states solemnly, before breaking down into a small smile.
His passionate undertakings have taken him from his career as a poet working part-time gigs in journalism and advertising to get by to a successful publishing career. Moritz was awarded the Griffin Prize in poetry in June for his collection The Sentinel. The award honours one Canadian and one international poet a year, and past winners have included Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.
More recently, Moritz just finished working as the guest editor for the second annual collection, The Best Canadian Poetry in English, which launched on Nov. 11.
Moritz gestures to his packed bookshelves, cluttered with stacks of literary magazines covered in post-it notes.
“You can see some of the remains of the project on my shelf,” he explains. “I went through all of the issues printed in 2008 of about 54 magazines. It was a hard work, because it was a lot of work. But it was good to survey a year’s work across Canada. And while you can’t claim that there isn’t a lot of material that’s mediocre and boring, there’s a surprising amount that’s very good.”
“I look for the combination of energy or power with perfection,” he continues. “Often people think those two things are separate. But that separation is a cliché of our time, and represents nothing but weak thinking. Something that is excellent is going to maintain the maximum power within the maximum finish. It will have both energy and beauty.”
The Best Canadian Poetry in English contains 50 works by 50 separate Canadian authors. A list of the magazines surveyed appears in the index of the collection, as well as a note from each author represented. Moritz also authored an introductory essay about the state of Canadian poetry today.
“Although there’s many things that you can discover in the anthology, there is a kind of theme of a great respect for being. This respect comes through a focus on a specific subject, and a respect or veneration for the things that exist, and that we see. It might be a person observed in the street, or some kind of an old abandoned building, but there is this respectful attentiveness towards the ‘thing’ and its relation to reality,” he says as he begins to explain the role of poetry in society.
“Poetry is the combination of looking with venerating attention at reality, and at the same time, by that same method, provoking shipwreck in human concepts,” he explains. “Poetry is freer than other human endeavours. It’s the place where you’ll find truth spoken. You’ll see inspiring things, and terrifying things, and you’ll go beyond reality into a realm of concepts. In this way, poetry is the most central human endeavour. That is also why it is the most ignored.”
Moritz explains that for him, the hallmark of good writing or creating is complete absorption. Writing poetry is his entrance into “a time that is both outside of time and before time.” His passion and reverence for the craft is refreshing, and his rhetorical awareness of the meaning of poetry is compelling.
Ultimately, Moritz explains that poetry is not limited as an intellectual endeavour, and that no creator functions under the pressure of considering the impact of their creation on society. Instead, poetry and poetical inspiration are available to everyone, all the time. Often there are moments of awareness that some notice, and others miss.
“I might be standing somewhere—and I think that almost everybody has had this kind of experience—and suddenly, from up in front of you flies a bird, and maybe it’s a bright red bird, but because you’ve been startled, or because of your receptivity at that moment, it suddenly seems to you an appearance out of nowhere like a messenger sent to you. And at least for a moment, you think, you’ll remember it always. And maybe you’ll realize that in every moment, and in every appearance, there could be the vastness and wonder that you felt. That’s inspiration.”
*The Best Canadian Poetry in English is published by Tightrope Books.*